Napa County winery, vineyard permit fix-it deadline brings fewer applications

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There was a flurry of filing ahead of the March 29 deadline Napa County set for owners of winery, vineyard and other properties to voluntarily straighten out differences between what’s allowed in their use permits and actual operations, but what fell on the planning department counter by that afternoon was but a dusting of the hundreds anticipated.

By the 2 p.m. deadline, 54 applications were filed, including 33 for use permits or modifications to them and 21 for status determinations — whether existing permits were compliant or in violation, according to David Morrison, director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services. Early estimates from Morrison and wine industry professionals on how many would apply ranged from around 100 to as high as 300 of the nearly 500 wineries in the county.

“Nobody really knew,” said Rex Stults, director of industry relations for Napa Valley Vintners, a winery trade association with about 550 members.

The handful of consultants and land-use attorney who handle a lot of the local wine-related use permit applications told the Business Journal they each have had to turn away dozens of inquiries to handle the dozen or so filings for existing clients. And they say a new wrinkle in the voluntary compliance application — attesting that information submitted is true, under penalty of perjury — may have been a sticking point for some.

“I’ve been advised by attorney’s not to sign it,” said Bill Keever, an owner of Keever Vineyards in Yountville and a member of Coalition Napa Valley, a group of vintners and industry professionals that objects to a crackdown on use permits.

Stults said his association’s lawyers are reviewing that language, which he said was added “late in the game.”

Missing the voluntary compliance deadline largely means any subsequent notice of violation would start a one-year clock before a permit modification could be sought, plus fines or other penalties for noncompliance. Some inside and outside the wine business saw this one-year period as not much different from the up to a few years it can take to get a use permit now.

A status determination is a 30-day window for county staff to check the premises for violations, and if found, the applicant can seek a new permit or modification.

The next deadline under the compliance program is set for July, when data from federal and state filings on winery production and percentage of Napa County grape sourcing would start to be filed.

“That’s the next big thing,” Stults said. “The past is the past. We’re looking to the future.”

Some vintners in Napa Valley say they feel like they were hit by a one-two punch of county regulation last week.

On March 26, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to increase what’s required to clear rural land for vineyards, homes and other projects, capping years of contentious discussion in the valley, particularly following the hyper-narrow defeat of the Measure C watershed and oak preservation ordinance on the ballot last June.

While a proposed ban on work done to slopes over 30 percent was nixed before the evening vote, the board approved an increase in the ratio trees would have to be replaced in watershed areas — to 3-to-1 from 2-to-1, absent an approved “public benefit” — 50-foot setback from wetlands and 250- to 500-foot setback from city reservoirs, according to the Napa Valley Register.

Then came the March 29 deadline for wineries to align their use permits with current business operations such as gallons of wine produced, events held, visitors per day and workers employed. Part of the policy adopted by the Board of Supervisors in December allows vintners to file for major modifications of their use permits, then have up to five months to file all required documents, or ask county staff to evaluate existing use permits for compliance.

“This compliance deadline is another tone-deaf example of our supervisors not caring and not listening to our industry,” said Stu Smith, founder and managing partner of Smith-Madrone winery on 200 acres of Spring Mountain west of St. Helena. “It’s both shocking and discouraging.”

One of the groups he’s part of is Coalition Napa Valley, which spoke out against the watershed ordinance, which comes back to the supervisors for a final vote April 9.

One of the advocates for the winery permit policy and the watershed ordinance for years is Napa Vision 2050.

“These past several years, we’ve seen people forgiven for overstepping their permits by huge amounts,” said Charlotte Helen Williams, president of the group, which has nine board members, a steering committee of 20 and an email mailing list of 1,800. “We’re not out after the whole industry, but we want everybody to operate within their permits at least. We’re very unhappy with how the county has been almost arbitrarily issuing new permits or forgiving permits. There have been some fines but not much industrywide.”

Some of the handful of consultants who regularly handle local winery permits said they have been at capacity for their firms, just working on filings ahead of the deadline.

“It’s been the most hellacious six-week period in my 46-year career,” said Donna Oldford of Plans 4 Wine. She worked on just nine applications for existing clients, turning down two dozen inquiries for such work. A county planning staffer reportedly told her that fewer than 10 applications had been submitted before she brought hers in March 27.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at or 707-521-4256.

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